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Commentaries and editorials

Brown's Dam-Busting Lawsuit
is Bad for Clean Energy

by Kurt Miller
Regal Courier, August 12, 2021

A state lawsuit would hurt clean energy plans.

Water runs through spillway gates of Lower Monumental Dam on the Lower Snake River in southeastern Washington. A few years ago, I attended a meeting where then-Secretary of State Kate Brown was the featured speaker. I didn't know much about Brown, but I came away impressed with her knowledge on different policy issues as she took questions from the audience.

For that reason, I've been surprised by the very disjointed energy policies Brown has put forward while serving as the state's governor. She frequently touts climate change as an existential threat to Oregon, but regularly calls for the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams. Those dams happen to produce more zero-carbon energy than any renewable energy project in Oregon except the four lower Columbia River dams.

Fast forward to late afternoon of July 16, the state quietly filed a motion for injunctive relief against the operation of the federal hydropower system.

Oregon's motion, if successful, would waste up to 1300 average megawatts of renewable electricity by spilling water over the top of dams rather than letting it generate energy, passing through turbines. One average megawatt is enough electricity to power roughly 750 homes.

The motion would make it much harder to achieve the goals set forth in Oregon's recently passed Clean Energy Bill, because intermittent renewable sources, such as wind and solar, depend on hydropower to fill in the gaps when wind/sunshine aren't present.

While this motion is clearly bad for our fight against climate change, it is terrible for Oregonians.

If adopted by the court, the state's proposed operation will likely add hundreds of millions of dollars of additional electricity costs for consumers. Increasing the motion's severity, Oregon has asked that its operation be adopted almost immediately; starting in 2022, leaving virtually no opportunity to prepare the region for this significant loss.

A 2020 analysis by the Bonneville Power Administration and other federal agencies showed an operation similar to the one proposed by Oregon could raise BPA's electricity rates by 25% to 40%.

When you're thinking about that magnitude of an increase in your electric bills, consider that about four million electric customers across the Pacific Northwest are served by utilities that are highly dependent on BPA for their power supply, including roughly one-third of all Oregonians.

Importantly, many of the communities served by BPA power have the highest levels of racial diversity in the state as well as persistently high poverty levels, so this cost increase will be deeply felt among the most disadvantaged.

According to the federal agency report, the operation put forward by Oregon could also result in region-wide blackouts once out of every three years due to lost generating capabilities. It's important to put this risk in the context of extreme weather events.

Reports indicate almost 800 people died in connection with the recent heat dome event in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The consequences would have been much more dire without a reliable power supply.

While we're sure the Governor will say these measures are necessary for salmon health, this premise has been disproven or at least thrown into question. In 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report blaming significant declines in marine fish populations on warming, acidifying oceans caused by climate change -- a trend it noted has been happening unabated for the past 50 years.

Several recent studies pertaining specifically to salmon support the IPCC's conclusions.

In short, Oregon's decision to file this motion is confusing. It doesn't make sense for the climate, for salmon, and most especially for Oregonians, who Brown has sworn to represent.

We encourage you to write to the governor and to state and federal representatives to let them know you're paying attention and you oppose Brown's decision to litigate. It's time to make our collective voices heard on this important issue.

Kurt Miller is executive director of Northwest RiverPartners.
Brown's Dam-Busting Lawsuit is Bad for Clean Energy
Regal Courier, August 12, 2021

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